DES MOINES — A federal judge Friday extended an order that will prevent state officials from enforcing a law that prohibits school districts from implementing mask requirements until a federal lawsuit challenging the law can be heard.
Judge Robert Pratt had earlier issued a temporary restraining order preventing Gov. Kim Reynolds and Department of Education Director Ann Lebo from enforcing the law Reynolds signed in May.
The order entered Friday issues a preliminary injunction that continues to prohibit the state from enforcing the law until the court case can be decided.
Lawyers for Reynolds and Lebo immediately filed notice of an appeal with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which could reverse Pratt's order or keep it in place.
Eleven parents and The Arc of Iowa, a group that defends the civil rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, sued the state on Sept. 3. They claim the law substantially increases the risk of several children with health conditions of contracting COVID-19 and that it violates federal laws including the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Pratt cited the current trajectory of pediatric COVID-19 cases in Iowa since the start of the school year and the irreparable harm that could befall the children involved in this case as reasons for the order.
At least two dozen Iowa school districts have implemented mask requirements since Pratt’s initial order on Sept. 13. They include the state’s largest public school district in Des Moines. Also Ames, Ankeny, Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Council Bluffs.
"Many of the largest school districts in the state, as well as several smaller districts, quickly acted to adopt universal masking policies to ensure the protection of almost one-third of Iowa’s public school children,” Pratt wrote.
He added that a preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy but necessary given the current trajectory of pediatric COVID-19 cases in Iowa, the irreparable harm that could be caused to the children in this case and the important public interests at stake.
Pratt noted data from the American Academy of Pediatrics that indicated Iowa, like many states, has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases among children and several school districts have reported more positive cases in the first few weeks of school than during the entire previous academic year.
In the latest data posted by the Iowa Department of Public Heath 23% of new positive cases in the past seven days were children age 17 and younger, which would equate to more than 2,000 cases in a week.
State data shows 11 children 17 or younger are hospitalized with COVID-19 with an additional six patients aged 18 or 19.
Nationally, Pratt noted: “Unfathomably, 142 children died between the AAP’s reports of August 12 and September 30, bringing the total number of COVID-19 deaths of children to 520.”
The dispute is one of several playing out in school districts nationwide, where parents, school administrators and health officials are battling over enforcement of mask protocols. The U.S. Education Department has opened civil rights investigations in five Republican-led states, including Iowa, that have banned or limited mask requirements in schools.